Thursday, February 2, 2012

Behind This Door

Marcel Duchamp's last great work, Etant Donnes, stands in two parts: the public facing front, which is a simple, unassuming rough hewn wooden door beneath an arch of brick in a dark room that feels like an off-limits closet; and the scene behind the door, that you can't walk into but you're supposed to see by peeping through a hole. That scene you look into is the culmination of 20 years of labor and is at once explicitly sexual, philosophical and autobiographical. If you don't know that there's something to see behind the door you might not look. But once you look, you'll probably be shocked, even if you were warned ahead of time about what lies behind it.

Snake & Jake's Christmas Club in New Orleans is very similar in this regard. The picture at the top of this post is one I took walking by in the daytime, and it looks like a shed or someone's garage, if that someone really liked old booze branding. It's in a quiet residential neighborhood near Tulane University, surrounded mostly by middle class houses filled with families and students. But inside is something else entirely.

I walked in on a Wednesday night after finishing a late night of writing at Z'otz on Oak. Morgan, a bartender I met on a previous trip, recommended the place, telling me to expect a degenerate wonderland. And it really is. It's an old room with a low, drooping ceiling, old furniture scattered around, illuminated solely by old red Christmas lights. There was a fairly big crowd of service industry folks and students who may or may not have been of age. The barkeep was a sweet, shaggy dude in his early 30s named Reese. I positioned myself in the corner of the bar and ordered a Turbodog. Reese said, "You can go ahead and have that for free - it's the first one I ever served." Yes, it's that kind of place.

On my second beer I eavesdropped on Reese talking to a patron wearing seersucker sportscoat, hat and tie. A skinny 50-something black dude with an air of authority walked past and Reese said, "Remember when this place was more dangerous? I guess it's better this way now. But that guy, were you here that time with the lawnmower? He'd try to sell this stuff and to prove it worked he'd fire it up so one time he just walked in the front door and fired up his lawnmower and walked it through the room."

"Yeah," Seersucker said. "I was there. Remember the chainsaw?"

"Yup," Reese said. "Best 20 bucks I ever spent was when we were getting trouble from those yuppies who lived down the street. We pooled some cash and he went over there with his own hose when they were having a party, walked into their place, hooked up his hose and sprayed them all down! And they were all too scared of him to say anything."

On my third beer Reese finally charged me, but reluctantly. "We're just out to lose money," he said cheerfully. Then we got talking about the bar. "I used to barback here, and my first night as a bartender, when it wasn't my job to clean up anymore, some nasty cokehead took a big nasty shit back in that corner of the bar. Man, I was glad it wasn't my job to clean up anymore. That shit was nasty. But I've never had to clean teeth. That would be the worst thing to clean up. Hierarchy of nasty shit to clean I think is vomit, blood, poop, teeth."

I guess it was my fourth beer when Reese started talking fitness with a sad fellow who'd just broken up with his lady. "Now you can get healthy though," he said. "When I broke up with my last girlfriend I was able to go back to exercising."

"Yeah," the sad guy said, "Girlfriends make you fat."

"No," Reese said, "Girlfriends don't make you fat. Girlfriends make you happy and comfortable enough in your own skin that you can get fat. You don't wanna be fat. No one wants to be fat. But girlfriends make you happy so you get to where it's ok to be fat."

Snake & Jake's Christmas Club is located at 7612 Oak Street in New Orleans. Don't say I didn't warn you.

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